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Octogenarian earns college degree after 63 years

Spencer at his volunteer post at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. Photo/submitted

By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer

Like many other students, Spencer graduated from Worcester State University with a degree in English this year. Although that is admirable there is another aspect that makes this a particularly notable story. This Shrewsbury resident (who prefers not to share his last name in this article) is 80 years old and he received his degree 63 years after he first attended college.

Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Spencer first attended college at 16, after graduating from high school in three and a half years. It was 1953 – the post-World War II era – and baby boomers were flooding schools.

However, Spencer just wasn’t ready and dropped out of Brooklyn College’s pre-med program after only a few months.

“I wasn’t ready for college,” he recalled. “I was too young. In high school, I didn’t want to study. I did the minimum amount of work and had a C+ average.”

Instead of college, Spencer joined the Army; he was a peacetime soldier from 1954-56. He then entered the business world, working in the computer industry. But his unfulfilled dream of earning a college degree kept nagging at him.

“I went back to college a few times at night,” he said.

In 1985, at the age of 50, he attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., through a new independent degree program.

“I was able to study independently and got straight As,” Spencer noted. “I was more mature and I wanted to be there.”

Unfortunately, after three years, his position at work required a move to Massachusetts with his wife Ruby and two children, marking the end of his secondary education for the moment.

At age 72, in 2008, Spencer retired and “needed something to do.”

He became a volunteer greeter at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, welcoming visitors and offering directions and information one day a week.

Spencer also decided to go back to college again at Worcester State University (at that time Worcester State College). Since the school did not offer a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, he opted for an English major with a philosophy minor.

“I was a serious student,” Spencer said. He graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average, summa cum laude, in December.

He hopes to continue on for a master’s degree in English.

“Spencer has proved to many of us that it’s never too late to finish what you’ve started, no matter how many years have passed,” commented Mandi L. Strzelewicz of UMass’ Marketing and Communications Department.

“I never thought I would get my degree,” Spencer said. “My aim was just to kill time!”

He seems to never sit still. In addition to volunteering, studying and spending time with his four grandchildren, he also plays softball, reads, builds model airplanes, and is writing a movie screenplay.

“I can’t just sit around,” he said. “If I live long enough, maybe I’ll go for a Ph.D. as well!”

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